1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

UN refers Saudi teen to Australia for refugee resettlement

January 9, 2019

The Saudi teenager fled her family and reached a hotel at Bangkok airport from where she sent out appeals for help via social media. The UN has taken up her case and asked Australia to welcome her.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun has 107,000 Twitter followers
Image: Twitter/Rahaf Mohammeed

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun said she fears for her safety should she be returned to what she describes as an abusive family in Saudi Arabia. She managed to reach Thailand's main airport at the weekend, where she put out appeals to find a safe refuge.

On Wednesday, the Australian government said it was considering granting the 18-year-old refugee resettlement following a referral from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"The UNHCR has referred Ms Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement," Australia's Department of Homeland Security said in an email.

"If she is found to be a refugee, then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa," Health Minister Greg Hunt told public broadcaster ABC.

A social media approach to asylum

Australia has strict immigration policies, but Alqunun's case has received sympathetic attention.

Read more: Senator's 'White Australia' speech sparks uproar

While Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton cautioned: "There is no special treatment in this case," he also said: "Nobody wants to see a young girl in distress and she has obviously now found a safe haven in Thailand."

Australia's Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton
Hardline minister Peter Dutton's portfolio includes oversight of intelligence, police and border patrol servicesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tsikas

The UN had placed Alqunun under its protection in Thailand after she had escaped her family in Kuwait by boarding a flight, heading for Australia with a change of plane in Thailand.

She was detained by authorities in Bangkok as Saudi Arabia revoked her passport, but refused to board a flight back to Kuwait. She barricaded herself inside a hotel room at the airport and started to send out messages via Twitter. Within days she had 50,000 followers and by Wednesday, the number had reached 107,000.

Hard times in Saudi Arabia

Alqunun said her abusive family in Saudi Arabia was trying to force her into marriage and had kept her in her room for six months after she had cut her hair. She also told Human Rights Watch that she had given up the Islamic faith.

She refused to meet with her father and brother who arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday.

Thai immigration police chief Major General Surachate Hakparn said UN officials had expected her case would be concluded within days.

Focus on human rights in Saudi Arabia has intensified following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country's embassy in Istanbul last year.

Women in Saudi Arabia have few rights and are restricted as to where they can travel without the permission of a male guardian.

jm/msh (AFP, Reuters)

Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.